How Detroit’s Case Against Black Lives Matter Protesters Fell Apart
A federal judge threw back a city lawsuit against the demonstrators in March. The decision comes after hundreds of criminal charges against protesters have been dismissed.
While the trial of former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin continues, other lawsuits have emerged across the country in connection with the civil rights movement that followed the assassination of George Floyd.
In Detroit, protesters against police brutality recently achieved a number of legal victories. Last month, a federal judge threw back a counterclaim filed against protesters against the city alleging they had engaged in a civilian conspiracy. Plaintiffs, anchored by the Detroit Will Breathe Collective, are continuing to pursue their complaint against the Detroit Police Department alleging that the officers used excessive force to crack down the street marches, violating the protesters’ First Amendment rights.
The decision comes after hundreds of criminal charges against protesters have been dismissed. City attorneys are trying to reverse the federal decision. However, in recent months, many of their legal claims have been withdrawn or dismissed.
“We’re done kneeling” – demonstrators march against the police
In the summer of 2020, young protesters became the hallmark of the Black Lives Matter movement in Detroit. When the city imposed a temporary curfew at 8 p.m. immediately after the police murder of George Floyd, hundreds of protesters surrounded the memorial to Joe Louis, the iconic black fist in Detroit’s Hart Plaza, reminiscent of the boxer. They held signs reading “I can’t breathe” and “Blue Lives Murder” while they waited to defy the new order.
Nakia Wallace, then 23 and graduated from Wayne State University, took a microphone that was plugged into an amplifier speaker that someone had taken downtown.
“This is what violence and police brutality look like,” she said as the crowd repeated her words. “Broken black skin. Blood. Bruises. And I can’t take it anymore “
A lot has happened to Wallace since that first week of protest. She co-founded Detroit Will Breathe, a collective that was the main hub of the city’s Defund the Police movement.
And she was arrested a lot.
Wallace was charged with disorderly conduct and various traffic violations resulting from months of street marches. She believes she was attacked by law enforcement from the start.
“There was simply no evidence that we committed any crime or that we did anything other than question the policies and practices of the Detroit Police Department,” Wallace said.
Wallace says the arrests themselves are also illegal. Last August, she, Detroit Will Breathe, and 13 other plaintiffs went to federal court and sued the city. They alleged the police violated their First Amendment rights.
“We intend to hold them accountable for the damage they have caused,” Wallace says. “We intend to make it so that officials in the city of Detroit cannot operate with impunity.”
Such complaints have surfaced across the country since the assassination of George Floyd. But Detroit is the only city that counteracts the protesters. City attorneys claim they have an obligation to pursue the lawsuit.
“My office has to defend the city in a federal court that involves Detroit Will Breathe,” Detroit Corporation attorney Lawrence Garcia told Detroit City Council earlier this year. “This will be an expense that will require funding no matter where we stand on counterclaims.”
Shortly thereafter, Detroit City Council approved a $ 200,000 contract to work with the Clark Hill law firm on the counterclaim.
And so, Nakia Wallace found herself on the defensive, arguing with the city in the legal arena over a number of civil rights issues.
“We knew from the start that the counterclaim was nothing more than the continuation of a political witch hunt,” says Wallace.
It has taken months for the cases to penetrate the criminal and civil justice systems.
A lack of evidence leads to a reversal of the strategy
On the criminal side, a local coalition of lawyers stepped in to offer free legal defense. The lawyers represented at least 279 people who were illegally arrested or charged during the protests. She says the protesters did not break any laws.
“They were just out there to protest for human rights, civil rights and black dignity,” says Nancy A. Parker, an attorney with the Detroit Justice Center. “And that’s why they were arrested.”
Defense attorneys said during their hearings that city prosecutors had not produced specific video evidence or identified arrest officers.
“None of these 279 defendants was where a DPD official could say,” I saw this person involved in this illegal act, “says Parker.” We know that this was not possible because we were unable to do so because of their lack Responsiveness to discoveries have made requests for dismissal. “
Many protesters were arrested en masse and booked together by a single officer. And those are details that the Coalition of Defense relied on. They filed motions to dismiss their clients’ cases, totaling nearly 400 criminal charges, based on the insufficient discovery.
And that was the argument the 36th District Court heard before dropping dozens of charges on Jan. 14.
“There is no way of arguing that the defendants can be beyond doubt or are responsible for the crimes they are charged with,” said Judge Larry Williams before dismissing the charges. “It should at least be recorded whether there was a body cam or not. But we don’t even know who the arrest officers were at the time, so there is no point in continuing with these. “
After Williams’ decision, other judges followed. And the prosecutors reversed their strategy. By the end of January, city lawyers announced they would dismiss hundreds of charges, citing the officials’ different “discretion” in quoting.
But some say this is a false narrative.
“You were embarrassed. They got embarrassed because we found out they didn’t have any of this evidence, ”says Parker. “They did not have what was legally necessary to move forward, what they should have and what should be presented to us.”
A federal lawsuit, a counterclaim, and a judge’s rejection
The city’s lawyers would not return WDET’s calls for an interview. But when Detroit’s Legal Department began dismissing charges against some protesters, cases against certain entities of the movement, such as Nakia Wallace, remained unchanged. Lawyers representing Detroit Will Breathe say prosecutors tried to intimidate the anti-police brutality movement.
“We were told by representatives from the city’s legal department that these were cases they didn’t dismiss because they saw them as leaders,” said John Royal, president of Detroit’s National Lawyers Guild, part of the Coalition of Defense. “By pinpointing the leadership, they try to discourage or intimidate other people from stepping forward and being active or being identified as leaders.”
Royal says many of the remaining charges were against individuals who are also listed as plaintiffs in the federal civil rights lawsuit against DPD and the city.
This is where the facts of the criminal courts overlap with the civil trials.
“[The City of Detroit] I’ve tried to use the simple fact that they arrested our clients as a basis for claiming they can sue them for conspiracy to commit violent conduct, ”said Julie Hurwitz, one of the Detroit Will Breathe attorneys in federal court represents.
Detroit lawyer Will Breathe says the city and its legal team have not produced enough facts to support their counterclaim, which alleged the protest group engaged in a “civilian conspiracy.”
“They were unable to identify any acts committed by Detroit Will Breathe or by any of the individual plaintiffs that could even remotely support a civil conspiracy claim under the law,” says Hurwitz.
The federal courts agreed on this point and permanently dismissed Detroit’s counterclaim. In her opinion, Judge Laurie Michelson wrote that the city had failed to identify the “essential elements” of its allegations.
“Their allegations about planning and coordinating the conspiracy are limited to media interviews with individual plaintiffs and posts on social media about participating in the protests, but not about illegal activities,” Michelson wrote. “On the basis of these facts, the court cannot draw any conclusion that an agreement on illegal acts was reached between the plaintiffs. In addition, law enforcement agencies have recourse if protesters fail to follow legal instructions to disperse. It does not include a speculative lawsuit that this could possibly have been the result of a civil conspiracy to commit unlawful acts with the associated risks to the freedoms of the First Amendment. “
Detroit and its legal team are making one final attempt to reverse the federal judge’s decision. They requested re-examination, stating that the court had ignored the city’s underlying complaint that demonstrators committed an attack and battery against police officers. The words “attack” and “battery” are missing from Detroit’s original 65-page counterclaim.
“People are starting to wake up and realize that in this society we have a culture of law enforcement that is based on violence and racism,” says Hurwitz. “That’s what this movement is about. And no prosecution of these protesters or frivolous counterclaims against legitimate civil rights claims will stop this movement. “
As the litigation progresses, Detroit attorneys Will Breathe are seeking concrete evidence from the city. However, based on recent experience, many are skeptical that the Detroit Legal Department will deliver.
Outside the federal court, Nakia Wallace’s criminal complaints were dismissed by a judge. Only a handful of charges arising from the summer protests remain. While Michelson’s orders secured a victory for the protest movement, Wallace says the recent legal victories shouldn’t detract from the broader struggle.
“This is a coordinated effort between law enforcement and city government to get us paid to participate and be a leader in the largest social movement in United States history,” Wallace said. “You have the plan to hunt down and punish people who stand up for the black and brown life.”